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DEVRA FIRST

‘People say: You came from Boston for what? I came for this.'

After the explosion in Beirut, chef Jay Hajj returns to his hometown to volunteer with World Central Kitchen

Jay Hajj returns to his hometown to volunteer with World Central Kitchen
After the explosion in Beirut, chef Jay Hajj returns to his hometown to volunteer with World Central Kitchen

On Aug. 4, a massive explosion in Beirut killed more than 150 people, injuring and displacing many others and devastating the city. Lebanon was already in crisis, its economy and currency in collapse, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the United Nations World Food Programme, since October 2019, as the Lebanese lira lost about 80 percent of its value, food prices increased 109 percent. Hunger was a serious problem even before the blast.

Jay Hajj on the ground in Beirut.
Jay Hajj on the ground in Beirut.Courtesy of Jay Hajj

This is the kind of situation World Central Kitchen was built for. The organization, founded by D.C. chef Jose Andres, has provided emergency food relief in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, in Houston after Hurricane Harvey, and across the United States during the pandemic, among other locations. WCK began serving meals in Beirut on Aug. 6.

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"The brilliance [of the program] is really that a lot of the resources are already in the country," says Sam Bloch, director of emergency response. The organization set up its own kitchen in Beirut, but also enlisted local restaurants to participate in the effort. "We were able to have nine restaurants start cooking for us within the first few days. The chefs are there, the food is there, and the people are eager to work, to be employed. A lot of the restaurants, as we see in the US, were already really struggling here due to COVID."

As of Tuesday, Bloch says, WCK has served more than 80,000 meals in Beirut, at an average of 50 locations every day. "It's really working with the local community that I refer to as 'need knowers,' finding where the pockets of people in need are, and providing daily consistent, dignified meals to them." These meals can help restore a sense of normalcy for those who receive them, he says. "Food can very much do that, provided consistently and cooked with care. There's a lot more than just the nutrition in the food itself."

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Among the volunteers powering the Beirut effort is Jay Hajj, chef-owner of Mike’s City Diner in the South End. Hajj previously assisted WCK in the Bahamas, but this time it’s personal. He was born in Beirut, immigrating to the United States when he was 8 years old, and much of his family still lives in the region. This is an account of his experience, in his own words.

World Central Kitchen chef and founder Jose Andres in Beirut.
World Central Kitchen chef and founder Jose Andres in Beirut.Samantha Higgins/WCK

Aug. 13

The flight was great from Boston. It was very comfortable, because the planes are empty. I have a lot of family here, cousins and second cousins who I'm very close to. WCK was looking for volunteers. I'm reading all of this and it's bothering me that I'm not already there helping them. They need all the help that they can get, and I'm so happy to be helping them, especially in Beirut, of course.

It’s one of those times where I could have just watched this on TV. But I felt awful. I’ve been here [the US] since I was 8, and I’ve heard a lot of news from Lebanon since I’ve been here. It never bothered me because I felt like Lebanon will be Lebanon; you’re always going to have these problems. I’ll tell you, this last one really bothered me. How much can people take? The government is corrupt. These are good, beautiful people. It’s a beautiful country. It’s one thing after another, from the currency collapsing to COVID hitting Lebanon, then you put in this explosion that really destroyed Beirut. How can I help? So I’m very happy that the World Central Kitchen is there and I could be there. Besides cooking, I know the language. I know how to navigate in Beirut.

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I was 8 when I left, and I never knew how far [my home] was from the explosion, even though I'm from the area. But the church I lived next door to, I was watching a video of a couple getting married there, and all the glass exploded right through. That affected me. I've got some family that had a lot of property damage and some scrapes and bruises, but everyone's OK.

I'll report in at 6 in the morning. Whatever they need me to do, cook or sweep the sidewalks, I'm there.

World Central Kitchen in Beirut.
World Central Kitchen in Beirut.Samantha Higgins/WCK

Aug. 14

Today was a good day. It was a little exhausting. We made sandwiches today and plates. We were making falafel in our kitchen. We made about 1,900 rollups. Other kitchens did plates with chicken. I had my head to the ground and worked. There’s a lot of Lebanese volunteers, and a lot of people from D.C. from [WCK] headquarters came in. It was a great team. All hard workers. Even people you could tell had never really cooked before rolled up sandwiches. They have to be rolled and wrapped right. There were college kids. They were great, all working their hearts out. It was all very positive. Everybody had positive attitudes and smiles. I thought I was going to feel danger. To tell you the truth, this is the first trip I probably ever did where I felt a little nervous leaving. The government, the corona, and the [blast] — it was a combination.

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I wanted to get back to the hotel and take a shower and nap for an hour or two. But if you're in Lebanon and people know you're in town and not visiting, they'll take offense. It's funny. I love them all.

I just met up with my cousins and we’re going to have dinner. I thought the economy was dead, but we stopped at a few restaurants to get in, and they were busy. People seemed in a much better mood than I thought so far. A lot of high-end places are completely closed. I was looking for a Starbucks and I couldn’t find one. But so far it’s been great. It feels really good. It’s just very positive.

People feel good that the outside is helping, that's what I got the sense of. People say: You came from Boston for what? I came for this. There's a mood of hope. I'm very grateful WCK is here, and their people are wonderful. When the driver comes to pick up 500 sandwiches and they're not done, the driver jumps in and starts cooking.

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Volunteers pack up sandwiches for World Central Kitchen in Beirut.
Volunteers pack up sandwiches for World Central Kitchen in Beirut.Samantha Higgins/WCK

Aug. 17

There’s a huge electricity outage. Did that happen from the [blast]? No. Most of the people can only get real electricity for a few hours. You can’t count on the electrical company. Beirut is a big city. You expect a lot of light. It feels kind of weird, like you’re watching a movie with zombies in it, just a few lights here and there. Where the kitchen is, there’s a lot of glass broken here, but not a lot of damage like there is in the city where whole buildings are blown away.

I went out and saw all this devastation. It was awful. It was crazy. But people are out and about. We went to the port. We got maybe 500 yards away from [the blast]. Structures are standing, but at the same time all mangled up. There is a lot of cleanup. Some apartments were redoing the windows. They have to live there. Now that I've started talking to people more, out and about in the streets instead of hiding in the kitchen cooking, I see how much people are almost giving up hope in everything. I don't know how to put it. They're just very depressed about everything.

I'm cooking every day with a lot of volunteers. I'd like to say I'm the hardest-working guy in the kitchen, but I'm not. I get there at 6:30 or 7 and people are there already starting things up. Tomorrow I'm going to work until noon and then go out with the drivers to the hospitals, not that they need me. I just want to feel what the situation is out there.

The coronavirus rate is very, very high. Everybody's very nervous about that as well. Everybody has this app. It's not like us, where we have to watch the news. My cousin is with me. Let me ask him. It's 494, he has it exact. Yesterday it was 396 and four dead yesterday; today it's six dead. My cousin said, "l want to volunteer and help too," so we are sharing a room.

Today we made Lebanese food. We did hashweh rice with steamed chicken on top, and then like a seven-spice broth-y gravy. It was delicious. It doesn't usually have the gravy, but we had to put some flavor on it because we were afraid it might not travel well.

World Central Kitchen is in Beirut helping feed residents after a devastating blast.
World Central Kitchen is in Beirut helping feed residents after a devastating blast.Samantha Higgins/WCK

Aug. 18

We’re all having dinner, all of the crew of WCK. We went out to the sister restaurant of where we’re working at, where our kitchen is. The other branch is up in the mountains, overlooking the city. It’s nice. When you’re working, you don’t sit and talk and get to know anyone. They’re all good people. They’re all interesting. Everyone in this industry is a character. Including me! [Laughs.]

Even though we went out, we had to come back early. [In 2005, former prime minister Rafik] Hariri got killed in a bombing, and today they were going to [deliver the verdict], so everybody was on edge, but nothing happened.

Today was an easy day at the restaurant. We did sirloin steak and vegetables. Sirloin steak over here is very expensive because it’s imported. Lamb is much cheaper. They let everybody go by 12, and I jumped in a car delivering food with a young kid still in college and his girlfriend who have volunteered a lot through different organizations. They explained how the blast affected the people. With the currency being so bad, and with the coronavirus, it just killed everyone.

It felt good today. Work was easier than usual, and I got to go around Beirut. We went to the hospitals. We brought sandwiches to the staff and the volunteers working there fixing everything up. The doors were all blown up, the windows all blown out. Then we delivered the food to a local mayor of a small part of Beirut, and he delivered it to the homes where he knows they need food. It’s an area that’s middle-class and up, and they’re embarrassed to ask for it. The food we deliver is food WCK buys from local restaurants to keep the economy going. They usually pay them not the going rate. They’ll pay them like 2½ times that. They’re really feeding the local economy.

Volunteers pack up sandwiches in Beirut.
Volunteers pack up sandwiches in Beirut.Samantha Higgins/WCK

Yesterday everybody was down. The Lebanese were like: We want to leave, I just want to move anywhere, I'm sick of it, we can't be in the same situation all the time. There was a lot of negativity. It was a long day and a tough day. But today everybody was in a better mood. It seemed a lot better.

The people that run the government, it's like running a restaurant when you have no idea how to run a restaurant. The officials have no idea and don't know where to start to fix it. The country needs a lot of help.

But the explosion brought attention to everything that’s going on. People are hoping there will be change in the government. Especially the young people have this motivation. They feel something good is going to come out of it. I felt hope in the beginning, but yesterday I didn’t feel that. Today I feel hope again.

To donate to World Central Kitchen, go to www.wck.org.


Devra First can be reached at devra.first@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.